Modern gaming hardware is extremely powerful. Lightning-fast SSDs and high-end GPUs capable of ray tracing power help power the latest gaming consoles and PCs. However, for all of their hardware might, those systems have a tough time running games designed for older platforms. Other platforms simply offer an incredibly limited selection of retro games. That’s where emulators come in.
Instead of trying to brute force retro games to play on modern hardware, coders develop programs that simulate the conditions provided by older platforms. These applications, colloquially known as emulators, trick game ROMs to function as normal. However, since different ROMs were designed for different hardware, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all emulator. If you don’t have the correct emulator, you can’t play certain ROMs. In fact, some emulators are designed with different users in mind. Some are simple so anyone with a modicum of computer knowledge can play, while others are created with techies in mind and can be modded to hell and back.
Because of those differing design philosophies, some emulators are better than others. Even those trying to emulate titles as “simple” as some of the best NES games may find that there’s a pretty drastic difference between a good NES emulator and one that only technically works. That being the case, here are the best emulators for anyone in the mood for some NES games.
How to Responsibly Use NES Emulators
Now before you continue, you need to be aware of an important warning: The use of emulators sits in a morally (and sometimes legally) gray area. Emulators themselves are 100% legal. Heck, Nintendo used the Kachikachi and Canoe emulators to produce the NES and SNES Classic consoles. The only problem is that emulators are more or less digital game consoles. An NES emulator without a ROM is pointless as an NES without a game cartridge, and downloading ROMs off the internet is illegal.
The only legal way to acquire game ROMs is to extract them from game cartridges you already own using specialized tools such as the INLretro Dumper-Programmer. If you plan on using any of the programs listed in this article, doing things the legal way will save you a ton of headaches down the line. Plus, that method ensures you won’t have to worry about downloading a ROM infected with malware from a shady website.
Furthermore, please note that every emulator functions differently. That being the case, you should always read about an emulator’s terms of service and basic instructions before you decide to download and use them. The more you know about the emulator you’re about to use, the happier you’ll be.
The Best NES Emulators
Most emulators only work with one kind of game ROM. So if you are in the mood to play a Sega Genesis game, you can’t use that Sega Genesis emulator you used to play an NES title. Retroarch solves that little problem.
Retroarch is one of (if not the) only exceptions to the “there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all emulator” rule I mentioned earlier. The program is less of an emulator and more of a frontend for all your emulation needs. Retroarch achieves this by utilizing different “cores” for various ROMs. For instance, if you want to play a Gamecube or Wii game, Retroarch can utilize the popular Dolphin core. To play NES titles, Retroarch uses Nestopia UE. You can pick and choose which cores you want from the emulator’s built-in online updater, though.
If Retroarch only offered an all-inclusive emulation service, that would still be more than enough to make it most gamers’ emulator of choice, but it actually does way more than that. The program includes a built-in video recorder, shaders that simulate how NES games look on different CRT TVs, and even automatic save states. Retroarch includes so many options and features that exhaustive documentation on how to properly use them all is all but impossible, which is the emulator’s only downside. If you’re willing to figure a few things out for yourself, though, it’s a tremendous option.
The purpose of most major emulators is to recreate how a classic game looked, sounded, and felt. The closer an emulator gets to achieving that goal, the more likely it is to be recommended over its competition.
Mesen is widely regarded as one of the most accurate NES emulators out there. The program comes in two varieties: vanilla Mesen for NES games and Mesen-S for SNES, Game Boy, and Game Boy Color titles. Moreover, Mesen is compatible with over 290 titles.
As with other emulators, Mesen includes a wide variety of extras that let players tweak their experiences. The emulator even includes save states, video filters, and built-in cheat codes. Moreover, if want to take your first crack at “romhacking” (i.e., modding the game), Mesen includes extensive debugging tools so you can create your own personalized titles. But unlike other emulators with more options than you know what to do with, Mesen is a breeze to download and set up. A handy configuration wizard runs the first time you run the emulator, which runs you through configuring controls and folder locations. You can’t get much easier than that.
Modern game consoles are designed to be region-free. You can purchase a PlayStation 5 game in Japan and it will play on the PS5 console you bought in America just fine. Whether or not you can understand Japanese is a different matter. Sadly, older consoles are not as open-minded. An NES cartridge from a European country won’t work on a North American NES console, for instance. Thankfully, FCEUX doesn’t suffer from that problem.
FCEUX is arguably as close as we’ll get to a bona fide one-size-fits-all NES emulator. Unlike Retroarch (which “cheats” by using the cores of different emulators) FCEUX supports NES ROMs of every variety, including European PAL, USA’s NTSC, and Famicom. However, all of that dedicated support comes at a small cost. Unlike Retroarch, FCEUX’s color palette leaves something to be desired. The colors aren’t horrendous, but they don’t measure up to other emulators.
What FCEUX lacks in color accuracy it makes up for in features. The emulator has all of the bells and whistles that Mesen and Retroarch have, such as debugging and recording tools, but FCEUX also includes special tool-assisted speedrunning. Unlike other emulators, FCEUX even supports joysticks.
As previously stated, Retroarch uses the Nestopia UE core for NES ROMS. Naturally, that factoid will probably make you wonder how that emulator functions on its own. Well, if Nestopia UE’s core was bad, gamers wouldn’t consider Retroarch one of the best emulators out there, now would they?
Nestopia UE is an open-source emulator written C++ that supports NES and Famicom Disk System games. The program is fairly accurate in terms of its renders and recreations, and it’s far easier to install and utilize than Retroarch is. In fact, since Retroarch utilizes Nestopia UE, if you only plan on emulating NES games and want an experience comparable to Retroarch, just download Nestopia UE to avoid the headaches that come with more complicated emulators.
Aside from the ease of installation, everything gamers like about Retroarch comes with Nestopia UE. The emulator features autosaving, netplay multiplayer, in-app recording, and a dedicated cheat dashboard. The only objective issue with Nestopia UE is its occasional performance dips. The emulator has a bit of a screen tearing problem, which is easily fixed by switching on VSync. But if you turn on VSync, games start to suffer from input lag. It’s a pick your poison scenario kind of scenario.
Before anyone can actually use an emulator, they usually need to download and set it up first. Depending on the emulator of choice, that process isn’t always straightforward. Even worse, you always run the risk of accidentally inviting malware into your computer. If only there were an emulator that let you play ROMs without any extra installations. Luckily, there is.
The Nesbox Emulator is a program that you can access from your browser. Just visit the emulator’s website, load a ROM, and start playing with no downloads necessary. Well, that’s only half true. You don’t need to download and install Nesbox, but you need to provide your own ROMs via OneDrive. Thankfully, the emulator accepts NES, Sega, SNES, and Game Boy ROMs.
Unfortunately, since the Nesbox Emulator is a browser-based program, it provides a fairly no-frills experience. The emulator provides save states, local multiplayer, and gamepad or keyboard support, but that’s about it. Nesbox might have the fewest features of any emulator out there, but that’s a small price to pay for its unrivaled accessibility.